I’ve seen a few posts and questions raised on social media platforms over the past couple of weeks or so from people asking for advice about starting a rabbit rescue. I love to see people’s enthusiasm for the cause, and we always welcome more support. But these questions leave me torn between wanting to encourage enthusiasm and deep concern about what might happen.
In many ways when Feona and I started Fairly Beloved Rabbit Care we were naive to what was in store for us. Having done my research I knew there was very little happening in terms of rabbit rescue in our part of the world. I remember vividly the conversation where we made the final decision to give it a go, and in particular I remember saying to Feona, “Are you sure? Once we start this, there’ll be no way to stop it!”. Since those early days I often use our naivity to explain just how big the issue of rabbit welfare is: We thought we’d save a handful of rabbits a year, and within our first week we’d reached ten rabbits! We now deal with a good couple of hundred per year, and this is only limited by our available space.
The reality is, much of our work is spent dealing with the rabbits we can’t rescue too.
So, if we’re so busy why would I be nervous about other people starting rescues? Surely if there is so much needing done, other rescues would help lighten the load?
Sadly, we find this isn’t the case. In our relatively short time of 5 years in operation we have had numerous cases we have had to step in and support where we take on large numbers of rabbits from the one person. In almost all cases these are people who thought they would try running a “hobby rescue”, and they’ve found themselves totally overwhelmed. With over 20 rabbits in their care they have found that they don’t have the time, money or resources to care for the rabbits properly. In many cases they also haven’t kept up to date with the latest research in rabbit welfare and so often have hutches that are far too small, don’t have access to exercise space, don’t invest in neutering (usually due to lack of funds) and don’t know how to recognise and treat common rabbit ailments such as e-cuniculi, fur mites, ear mites, gut stasis, messy bottoms, UTI, URI, etc.
In all cases we could not fault the ‘owners’ motivation. A heart very much in the right place, desperate to make a difference but simply not having access to everything they need to do the job right. Instead of making things better, they inadvertently make it worse resulting in additional burden on another rescue.
Of course, it can often be worse than this if they choose not to enlist the support of another rescue, the animals in their care are handed off to unsuspecting members of the public who are given outdated care advice and likely receive a rabbit with health conditions that they have not been properly informed about.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Fairly Beloved Rabbit Care are the only reputable rescue out there – of course we aren’t! But we are few and far between. Nor am I saying we get things perfect everytime – we don’t! (Although we do continuously monitor our service and make improvements based on lessons learned).
Have you noticed that many rescues only run for a few short years before they close? I read an article a few months ago, which I think was in Rabbiting On (the magazine for Rabbit Welfare Association members), about rescue burn out. It discussed how the pressure, stress and sheer volume of work involved in running a rabbit rescue resulted in burn out for those who started it. All that drive, enthusiasm and determination that motivated someone to start a rabbit rescue, dwindles rapidly when the reality of what is involved kicks in. There’s always more needing done than any team of rescuers can manage, and it takes a lot out of you.
I guess I am saying that if you have ever wondered what it would be like to run a rabbit rescue, then there are other ways to find out. Don’t jump straight in to the deep end and try start up your own rescue from scratch. Do your research first, and try to get a full understanding of what is involved.
My strongest message would be learn what its like. Before starting your own rescue, get involved in an established one and throw yourself head-first into every aspect of the charity. Not just the hands-on rabbit care side of things, but try to get involved in fundraising, events, dealing with enquiries, dealing with vets and partners, and most importantly dealing with the big rescue cases. Get used to making the difficult decisions about who’s rabbit gets priority for the one space left in the rescue. Deal with the decision about whether a rabbit gets the chance of risky treatment for that small chance they will make it, or whether you make them comfortable and help them to rainbow bridge.
A great deal of thought needs to go into how you fund the rescue to do things right. There is no profit to be made in rabbit rescue, and you will always juggle bills with fundraising to try to get books to balance. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve dipped into my own pockets just to make sure the service keeps going.
I am very proud of what we’ve achieved at Fairly Beloved Rabbit Care. We’ve spent a lot of time getting our charity structure right so that we protect our volunteers from the risk of “rescue burn out”. We offer great opportunities to get close to the action and really make a difference, whilst spreading the load across an ever increasing team. Our foster-care model means we can flex and shrink to balance demand with finances. We’re very much in this for the long-haul, and have plans to extend our charity to meet the needs of Scotland’s rabbits throughout the country. But, if I had a chance to make that decision again back in 2010 knowing what it is like in reality, would I start my own rabbit rescue? Honestly, I just don’t know.
I wouldn’t change it now though. But the thing we started as a hobby to occupy our spare time, has grown in to a much bigger challenge. Something that I have to do day and night, alongside my full-time job and family life. Rabbit rescue isn’t a hobby. It’s a way of life.